We often equate cutting-edge science with cutting-edge technology. But sometimes the most innovative solutions to our problems aren’t earth-shattering discoveries. Sometimes, they’re as old as dirt — and hiding beneath our feet. Sometimes, we get even luckier, and can get paid to implement them.
I’ve been growing corn, soybeans, alfalfa and small grains on my 300-acre farm in northwest Iowa since 1976. It’s been certified organic since 2002. Like fellow farmers, I’m constantly looking for better ways to reduce erosion and water runoff, maintain soil nutrients, keep pests at bay, and increase biodiversity.
I was intrigued, nearly 20 years ago, by an agricultural technique that mitigates farming-related problems: Prairie strips. The idea is simple. Install field-length strips with diverse native plants alongside your crops and let them protect soil, conserve water, and provide habitat for beneficial wildlife — including pollinators and farm-friendly bugs that curb pests.
Now, more farmers can benefit from prairie strips because they’re available for cost-share via the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers an annual rental payment for taking portions of their land out of agricultural production to plant native species that conserve soil and water and provide habitat for pollinators.
I planted my first prairie strip in 2002. Since then, researchers at Iowa State University and their partners created a research program called the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS), to promote this practice.
As an early adopter, the roots of native perennial prairie species now run deep into my farm’s soil, breaking it up and allowing water to seep in. These roots can increase water infiltration and reduce runoff by 44 percent. Prairie plants help prevent erosion and they’re amazingly effective. Research shows that converting just 10 percent of a crop field to prairie strips could reduce sediment flow into surface waters by 95 percent, phosphorous flow by 90 percent, and nitrogen flow by 84 percent.
On my farm, prairie strips attract insects that help control weeds and pests without using toxic chemicals. Instead, I’ve created habitat for a variety of weed-seed predators. Prairie strips also provide habitat for other wildlife like birds and that’s something to sing about.
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As a believer in sustainable agriculture, I’m concerned about the effects of runoff on water. Farms are responsible for the majority of phosphorous and nitrogen in waterways — including lakes, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico — where they create algal blooms and dead zones. We’re learning more about the effects that conventional farming has on the environment, but you don’t have to be an organic farmer to see the wisdom of reintroducing native prairie into our landscapes. Just visit a farm where the prairie strips bloom: ribbons of color breaking up the green sea of corn and soybeans, bees buzzing, birds flitting in and out of the sedges. It’s as if the soil is grateful.
If you would like to start planting prairie strips on your land, visit your local USDA office and check with your FSA agent about signing up through the CRP.
Paul Mugge farms 300 acres of organic corn, soybeans, small grains, and alfalfa in O’Brien County, Iowa. He has been farming since 1976 and all organic since 2002.